Sunday, August 3, 2014

Backpacking in the Mokelumne Wilderness 2014

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This is my 3rd time attending the annual ladies backpacking trip. The group started going in 2010 and my first trip was in 2012 to Ten Lakes in Yosemite, then in 2013 to Lake Gertrude in Desolation Wilderness. The outing this year was in the Mokelumne Wilderness, a federal wilderness area that is within the boundaries of three national forests - Stanislaus, Eldorado and Toiyabe.

Unlike years past, this year I hardly paid attention at all to where we were going or what the hike looked like. This is in part because I was so busy leading up to the trip and also because pf my confidence in being able to meet the physical challenge. I packed my backpack in a bit of a hurry and was up at 10:30pm the night before finding driving directions to the permit office.

This year I hiked in a day later than the rest of the group. I made the trek with a backpacking newbie, Jen. She and I both had scheduling issues preventing us from leaving earlier. Anyway, the email from Karen went like this...To my knowledge Jen has not backpacked before. So you are the veteran and she will be looking to you for guidance. Congrats on your "promotion"!  ;-)

Oh boy. Fortunately, this being my third trip, I felt pretty comfortable being able to find our way to camp. Jen and I drove to the ranger station and picked up a permit and a map (that could come in handy, eh?). While we were walking around the ranger station I couldn't help but notice the number of "warning" signs.

Mountain lions, bears, coyotes and...the plague! Oh my. Add to that, after asking where we were headed a guy visiting the ranger station offered, "Oh, lots of bears out in them parts." If Jen was nervous, she didn't let it show.

We parked and got our stuff together. My pack was not well thought out and weighed a back breaking 50 pounds! Note for next year, plan your pack and shoot for 35 pounds. After a bit of walking in circles we found the Allen Trailhead and got underway at noon sharp.

Jen and I at the start (the guy taking our pic insisted we both point to the map, so we did)

The plan
Karen had armed us with a photocopy of her map showing the route. I scoped it out on our map and away we went.

Cole Creek Lake 7 miles - our destination
The weather starting out was just perfect, warm but with a little cloud cover and a cool breeze now and then. We'd received the following text message from Group I the day before so we had reason to be grateful for what looked like good conditions.
Hey! Almost to the lake. Had to stop for a thunderstorm. Start early to avoid t-storms. Safety note: if you get caught in t-storm and your hair on your arms get staticy, GET AWAY from that location!!!!!! 
Turns out there was a spot on a ridge where they had cell service so they were able to get this out. The "safety note" prompted me to read up on what to do if lightening starts striking, "During lightening storms forested areas away from the tallest trees are safer. If you are in a treeless area put insulating material (sleeping pad, poncho) on a small rock and sit on it. Only your buttocks and feet should touch the material. Clasp your hands around your knees and pray (I added that last bit) and bend your head down, as in a seated fetal position. Be sure to remove metal frame backpacks, poles - anything metal can attract lightening." Ok, so we're as prepared as we can be for that.

So when we started hearing thunder during our hike in we both smiled that, "I sure hope we survive this" smile and took note of the sky. Fortunately the thunder never got close and there was no lightening or rain.

We made it to the top of the first climb at 2.2 miles and stopped for lunch and pictures. We'd started at 7,307ft elevation and this was 8,224ft. 

Looking down on Silver Lake, where we'd started

After lunch we had more climbing to do so after a brief rest we continued on. There were a few moments of confusion here and there, like what to do when we ran into the barbed wire fence (open it and pass through) but for the most part we were fine. We arrived at Allen Camp to find a dilapidated  log cabin and a beautiful meadow.

By now the weather had warmed up quite a bit and we were about to face a bit of climbing with very little shade. Between the sun beating down, my 50 pound pack, and the elevation - well, we weren't moving very fast. Ugh. As beautiful as the surrounds were, after a while we were head down, one step after the other, in a slow march up, up, up.

A couple miles of our trek included this wide off-road path. And check out the wildflowers. Wish my camera had picked up the yellows but they are lost in the green. So after a slow, hot climb we arrived at our highest peak, Plasse Trading Post at 8,635ft, just shy of 4 miles in to our 7 mile hike.

Jen looking for our trail
We walked around lost here for a moment before Jen realized we needed to continue a bit further on the off-road road before picking up our next trail. Go Jen! Lots of happiness ensued when we saw only 2.5 miles to go.

Almost there!
It was generally downhill from here, with little hills here and there just to keep us on our toes.

Toward the end we were walking in mostly treeless, rocky areas but fortunately there were enough cairns to keep us on course.

Cairns guiding us along our way
At one point we were looking around a bit lost when we noticed an orange bit of flag tied to a piece of wood. Upon inspection it had been left by our foretrekkers, helping alert us to the wooden arrow (strangely nailed to the base of a tree, why not nail the arrow up higher where it'd be easier to see?) pointing us toward Cole Creek Lakes.

I should have taken a wide shot to give you an idea how this wooden arrow was practically camouflaged. Anyway, the orange flag and Jen's eagle eyes (she's got a talent for spotting cairns) saved us...the arrow says 1/2 mile...we're so close! We came upon a meadow and spotted more orange tape tied to a tree, this time with our names on it.

Notice the little hand-drawn map?

X marks the spot. Complete with LAKE, I love these ladies!
So, through the meadow and voila - we spotted water. Woo-hoo!!! We started calling out and sure enough, they were waiting for us on the other side of the lake, "Walk around the lake!! You're here!!!"

To say the area was beautiful would not do it justice. As much as I wanted to put down my pack and take off my shoes, I couldn't help but pause for a picture.

So worth the effort to get here.
And yes, we arrived! Here's some Garmin route data.

Off with the packs and boots, hugs, smiles and cheers! all around, complete with a warm but hearty cocktail. Vodka and Crystal Light - yum! Here's a few random camp pics.

Arrows pointing to our 5 tents.

The kitchen

The pantry - of course we had twice as much food as we actually needed
The cocktails, laughter and conversation flowed - many of us don't see each other but for this once a year trip so we have a lot of catching up to do - and before I knew it I was quite tipsy.

That's our resident biologist Sarah laughing in the background - I love her!

Getting cozy with Karen

and swiping her hat

Ok, I was more than tipsy, let's call it drunk. Holy cow that happened fast. But we were having a blast! Somewhere in there I made myself dinner, a Trader Joe's madras lentils with brown rice. Last thing I remember is Karen, "are you ok?" as I felt myself drifting off to sleep in my chair. I happily wandered to my tent, took two Advil PM (I know, my poor liver), and fell fast asleep. It was only 9pm.

The next morning I woke up a bit after 7am to a sunny day and the sounds of (some of) the ladies making breakfast. Fortunately I felt pretty darned good considering. I heard stories of the drunken hilarity that ensued after I went to bed, including someone (who shall remain nameless) waking up with both a rock and a spoon in her sports bra. As well as the wrangling of ladies up on bluffs calling to the stars. Yep, it's true. But I slept through all of it.

I made my oatmeal and coffee and sat around waiting for both my and the group's energy to kick us into action. After a lazy morning six of us decided to head out to find Pardoe Lake.

Jen, Laura, Karen, Sarah, Erin and I - on our way!
There are no trails to Pardoe so a bit of orienteering was needed. Just in case, we had a plan that if we weren't back to camp by 5:30pm Angie would hike up to the ridge and call for a search party, "So you all damn well better be back by 5:30!"

Karen and Laura discussing the journey
Thankfully a few of these ladies, namely Karen, Sarah and Erin, know what they're doing. And I'm learning more every year. Laura and Jen were the newbies this year and they braved the great unknown wilderness with enthusiasm.

Sarah, Laura, Jen and Erin
Making our way up a mountainside

A map, a keen sense of direction and lots of experience and we eventually found it (we did also have a compass but never needed it).

Our trek

Pardoe Lake

(L to R) Laura, Sarah, Karen, Erin, Jen and myself lounging
We ate lunch, swam, lounged and enjoyed the peace that only being miles away from civilization can bring. And to think I almost missed this. Thank God I got off that couch all those years ago.

My lunch - naan with avocado, salami and cheese
After blissing out on nature we packed up for the return trek.

Karen, Sarah, Laura, Jen and Erin - how cool do they look?

We'd noted landmarks and left plenty of cairns so what took us one hour and 22 minutes on the way in only took 45 minutes to return. Back at camp and more drinking ensued, albeit with less gusto than the night prior. After all, we had a 7-mile hike out in the morning. I got antsy after a while so I took off on a solo tour exploring the near surrounds (telling people where I was going and never going out of shouting distance).

A long afternoon shadow

A happy hiker
I wish I could capture the breathtaking beauty of this valley

Mokelumne Peak
I returned to find the ladies hanging out eating dinner.

I'd eaten too much trail mix and never got hungry for dinner. We returned to the valley lookout to watch the sunset and wait for the stars to come out.

And we got our first group shot!

Me, Jen, Angie, Karen, Erin, Laura, Cheryl and Sarah in front of Mokelumne Peak

Karen trying to get a selfie but getting photobombed by everyone
Sarah and I ready for the night
Karen showing me some love!
I feel so lucky to be included in this group. This has been a challenging year for me and I unloaded a whole lotta life updates on these ladies and they embraced my attempt to find my way. Thank you wonderful women of nature and beauty for the unplugged, authentic, breath of life that is being in the backcountry with you all. If that sounds a bit cheesy, well, it's duly warranted.

Me and Mokelumne
I know my hair is blowing in the breeze but I love this picture
And as the sky darkened, I was lucky enough to snap this picture.

No filter
I sat up and watched the stars until I got too sleepy to stay up. But I couldn't fathom climbing in my tent and the weather was so nice, I dragged my sleeping bag out and slept on a rock, a blanket of stars to keep me company.

I woke up to the birds and sun and to Sarah and Karen greeting me a good morning.

That's me in the background.
My digs for the night
After breakfast and packing things up it was time to hit the trail for the hike out. But not before more pictures.

Strike a pose!

Altogether now!
Ready to go!
The hike back was grueling here and there. I usually hike the return in a bit of a nature-bliss daze and hardly notice the trek but this wasn't a cake walk.

Angie, Jen, Me, Karen, Laura, Cheryl, Erin
Of course we made it and happiness to be done carrying our packs meant smiles all around. We took a dip in Silver Lake before our drive back home. Er, before the drive to Mel's for burgers and sides and then the drive back home.

Well, that's it! There's already talk of where to go next year and I already can't wait. I have to close with a huge THANK YOU to Karen for being the ringleader of this whole thing. Karen, you add a richness to all of our lives, you are so appreciated.


  1. Absolutely fantastic! So glad you get to do this! Thanks for taking us along xo

  2. What an incredible, amazing trip!
    Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

    Can't wait to hear about more of your adventures!

  3. Wow - this looks like an amazing trip!! I love where you thank yourself for getting up off the couch all those years ago so that you can enjoy something like this.

  4. Looks like so much fun! And I want to thank you for your posts. You never fail to inspire me.!

    I've been having difficulty getting back on track lately and your one line. "I'm so glad I got up off he couch a few years back" (ok, so I paraphrased...ha ha ha) totally hit me. A whole new world is there for me if I just "DO IT"...and it's a world I look to with longing! Thank you!

  5. All round AWESOME!! Super looking trip in more ways than one!

  6. David Michael FairlessAugust 4, 2014 at 9:58 PM

    Great story! I would like to suggest a place for your next trip. Mineral King in Sequoia National Park. Like going to Switzerland without the airfare.

  7. Awe inspiring! The view is better at the top. You go girl!. I am on a weight loss journey too but my travel is by bicycle. I have knee problems that make walking difficult let alone climbing. But I have been cycling more and it is invigorating.

  8. I am so inspired each year by your hiking trips! I MISS having a group of women in my life. I've got one really great girlfriend these days, and that is truly enough, but nothing beats that comraderie. You are blessed to have this group!!

  9. Fantastic pictures!! Thanks so much for sharing your journey.

  10. Hey Michelle! So great to read your account of the trip since I wasn't able to make it (again) this year. Thanks for making me feel like I was there :) Leslie


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